A few observations from the NAFSA conference

I’m back from a week of panels, meetings, receptions, and dozens and dozens of convention-hall conversations at the annual meeting of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

Now that I’ve had a chance to unpack my bags, I’m sifting through my notebooks. They’re full of tips, observations, and fodder for future reporting. But here are a few initial reflections from the conference:

There is a lot of concern about what’s next. I told you last week that the word I was hearing most often at the largest gathering of international educators was hopeful. A close runner-up: uncertain. One enrollment-management veteran told me that he had attended an open discussion on international recruitment hoping to come away with some clear strategies but instead found himself commiserating with fellow attendees about the cloudiness of international-admissions trends.

This sense of unpredictability isn’t confined to the recruitment of foreign students. I heard from education-abroad officials unsure about how fresh Covid alerts and the war in Ukraine could affect the appetite of Americans to go overseas. A clarification to federal pandemic guidance for online study released on the conference’s first day is sowing confusion among international-student advisers. Administrators are warily eyeing the U.S. Congress as it considers stiffening oversight of global research and partnerships. And a big wild card is China, where President Xi Jinping’s likely decision to seek a historic third term could affect academic partnerships and student mobility.

International education will continue to have important, but sometimes difficult, conversations about diversity. It was impossible not to notice just how many sessions at the conference focused on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion, including how to get more students of color to study abroad, foster collaboration between international and multicultural offices, and educate international students about race in America. I went to several panels and every one was packed, evidence of the hunger of international educators to engage in DEI work. I also met a number of doctoral students and early-career academics who are focusing their research on questions of diversity and international education.

Yet, this will not always be easy. Despite its focus on cultural diversity, there have been longstanding gaps between international education and domestic diversity programming. The field also is confronting its own relative lack of diversity, particularly in leadership roles, the subject of multiple sessions. As Jewell Winn, president of the Association of International Education Administrators, told another standing-room-only crowd, “You’ll be working more at the intersection of international education and diversity than ever before.” Winn, who is chief diversity officer and directs international programs at Tennessee State University, a historically Black institution, said there may be “tough conversations” ahead. “I’m comfortable with making you uncomfortable if you think about things — and especially if you act,” she said.

The hunger to reconnect was palpable. Not a few people told me they were so happy to be back among colleagues and friends, networking and exchanging ideas, that they cried. Among those who attended, there was a sense of renewal.

But, of course, many were not there. Their absence was a sobering reminder of the personal and professional toll Covid has taken on the field. One conference-goer said she had hoped to connect with other community-college leaders but few were present. Although two international-exchange groups announced they were starting a professional-development fund to help international educators attend NAFSA and other gatherings, budget strains prevented some people from coming, and some colleges have cut back their commitment to international ed. Could we see a widening divide been haves and have-nots?

And holding such meetings in the not-quite-post-pandemic era will continue to be tricky. Despite masking and vaccination requirements, since my return home from Denver, I’ve been pinged with emails and social-media notices of folks who’ve tested positive. Wishing everyone a swift recovery.

Data show plunge, rebound in English-language enrollments

Enrollments in intensive-English programs plummeted 63 percent during the pandemic, according to data from the Institute of International Education. Total international enrollments, by comparison, fell 15 percent.

Short-term language study is more susceptible to disruption than full degree programs, said Julie Baer, a research specialist at the institute. Only about 1 percent of international students are now enrolled in English programs — down from 5 percent less than a decade ago.

But Baer noted that while Covid exacerbated the declines in English-language study, it wasn’t the only cause. Enrollments had been dropping before the pandemic, because of a variety of factors including more students learning English at home and the decision by foreign governments, in particular Saudi Arabia and Brazil, to stop funding language study.

Still, Baer said that the precipitous declines seem to have been stanched. To attract new students, many English-language centers have broadened their offerings, such as delivering some of their programming online and creating new certificates that combine English study with other disciplines, such as business or tourism. About 40,000 students were enrolled in intensive English programs in 2021, Baer said.

Cheryl Delk-Le Good, executive director of EnglishUSA, an association of English-language programs, said that new student-visa data offers hope for at least a partial rebound — as of May, the number of visas issued for language study is more than 40 percent higher than last spring.

Most undocumented high-school grads won’t qualify for DACA

Some 100,000 undocumented students will graduate from high school this spring, but most will be ineligible for the federal program that provides work authorization and deportation protections for people who came to the United States illegally as children.

Only about a quarter of this year’s undocumented graduates are eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, according to an analysis by FWD.us, an immigration-advocacy group. That’s because most members of the Class of 2022 came to this country after the DACA-required arrival date of June 15, 2007.

What’s more, only a fraction of those who qualify for DACA were able to successfully apply for the program because of court challenges and efforts by the Trump administration to limit DACA.

A college education may be unaffordable for many of these students. Undocumented students are ineligible for federal financial aid, including grants and loans. And fewer than half of all states allow undocumented students to receive in-state tuition benefits or qualify for state-based support. (Several more extend such benefits to DACA recipients only.)

Around the globe

The U.S. government will offer emergency employment authorization to international students from Cameroon who are facing economic hardship because of the unrest in their home country.

The number of researchers with dual academic affiliations in China and the United States is falling, according to an analysis conducted for Nature.

Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States has accused Russian forces of targeting universities and other educational and cultural sites in its attacks.

More than 9,000 students, teachers, and professors have been injured or killed in attacks on education over the past two years, a significant increase, according to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack.

Some students may have to take the gaokao, China’s ultra-competitive college-entrance exam, in isolation as the government imposes strict measures to keep the test Covid-free.

Two Hong Kong universities plan to restructure their political-science departments after student demand fell in the wake of a national-security law enacted by Beijing in 2020.

A new network to promote research integrity across Africa has been started.

Legislation in Israel would prohibit displaying the Palestinian flag at universities or other state-funded institutions.

The decision by Coinbase, a large cryptocurrency exchange, to rescind job offers has imperiled the visa status of recent international graduates it had hired.

A new grant competition will award up to $7 million to colleges and other groups for virtual-exchange programs between the United States and the Middle East and North Africa.

Is a new California State University policy banning discrimination by caste itself racist? The Chronicle‘s Race on Campus newsletter covers the debate.

And finally …

It can be hard to stand out at a crowded NAFSA conference. Some groups and institutions rely on catchy slogans, others on quirky giveaways. For New Zealand, it was fashion.

The exhibition-hall space of Education New Zealand Manapou ki te Ao featured a fresh take on graduation robes, the designs rooted in traditional Māori kākahu, or garments, and inspired by eight international students from around the globe.

Three of the robes, produced by students from the Whitecliffe School of Fashion and Sustainability, were on display throughout the conference. Made from sustainable materials like fabric discards and old sweaters from schoolchildren’s uniforms, they featured intricate details like woven necklines and delicate needlework that reflect Māori spirituality. “They couldn’t be from anywhere but New Zealand,” said Kiri Nathan, the lead designer, but by incorporating the experiences of international students, “they carry our education story to the world.”

Of course, New Zealand, whose universities have largely been closed to new international students because of strict Covid border closures, wasn’t relying solely on fashion to spread the message that it was reopening to international study. Chris Hipkins, the country’s education minister, also attended NAFSA. “We are really looking forward to seeing international students coming back. I think our institutions are much richer places for them,” Hipkins told The Chronicle. “Having international students at our institutions is actually a really important part of who we are.”

Thanks for reading. I always welcome your feedback and ideas for future reporting, so drop me a line at karin.fischer@chronicle.com. You can also connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn. If you like this newsletter, please share it with colleagues and friends. They can sign up here.